Flames’ Rinaldo Using His Voice for Mental Health Awareness

When Zac Rinaldo was drafted 178th overall in 2008 by the Philadelphia Flyers, it was seemingly a match made in heaven. He grew up cheering for the Flyers, and his rugged style of play seemed to fit the expectations of the Broad Street Bullies. He has played for five NHL teams now and he is still considered a protector of his teammates. He stands up for them, typically in the form of throwing fists with his opponent or laying out crushing checks.

Being an enforcer can be taxing on the brain, but Rinaldo chooses not to stay dormant on the subject. Instead, he is one of the main faces of mental health in Calgary. He spoke with me and many others through a mental health Q & A event hosted by the Calgary Public Library and hockey writer Renu Sahota of SBNation’s Matchsticks & Gasoline via Zoom.  

Rinaldo’s Role in Mental Health

Since 2014, the Calgary Flames Foundation has donated over $500,000 to support mental health in southern Alberta. As one of the Hockey Talks ambassadors of the Flames, Rinaldo’s role is to help break the stigma and educate on mental health awareness. His role always allows him to promote events around Calgary that help support people as they deal with any trauma or mental struggles, and he encourages anyone who needs a helping hand to reach out. “We just use our platform that we’ve been gifted with to promote mental health and different ways that you can facilitate and get better dealing with what you’re going through or anything that is on your mind that you want to deal with. We help people become comfortable and stay comfortable with sharing their struggles.” 

Brenden Dillon, Zac Rinaldo
San Jose Sharks’ Brenden Dillon is checked by Calgary Flames’ Zac Rinaldo (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh)

During a recent interview with TSN’s Salim Valji, Rinaldo opened up about dealing with what he prefers to call mental health “challenges” as opposed to “issues,” and he’s witnessed some of his family members deal with the same challenges. He strongly believes that using terms such as issue or illness may attract negative and unnecessary attention, which can be distracting from the real problem at hand.

“I think there needs to be a new way to word what you have. I’ve been in professional hockey for ten years, and every single year I go through mental health challenges that I have to overcome.” Rinaldo also feels that being more conversational about our daily challenges will help break some of the silence surrounding mental health, and he hopes it becomes a more common discussion.

A Balance and a Brotherhood

Rinaldo has made it clear that he wants to keep mental health conversation moving forward, as it’s something he’s dedicated to because it’s impacted his own life. He says, at times, the balance between being an enforcer and taking care of himself mentally away from the rink means there are good days and bad, but he’s been doing it since a very young age and feels he has a good grip on things.

“I’ve been deemed an enforcer from a very young age, like eight years old, so I’ve had that labeled with me ever since I started getting into contact hockey, and with me, it’s just been a part of my life. Now that’s just me on the ice. Off the ice, I’m a totally different person, but on the ice, I’m an enforcer and I’ve known my role since I was eight to ten years old so it’s been easy for me to adapt.” 

Zac Rinaldo Calgary Flames
Zac Rinaldo, Calgary Flames (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Rinaldo also gives big credit to his current teammates in Calgary, because he says they embraced him right away like a brother.

“On this team specifically, we’re all brothers. I walked in the room last year or a year and a half ago, and I felt like I’d known everyone for ten years, and that instantly grew a bond. After the first week, I’m like ‘I felt like I knew these guys for a year.’ So me coming to the rink every day, I was happy. I was happy to do my service, I was happy to protect, I was happy to enforce, and I was happy to be who I was in my role on the ice, and that’s half the battle. If your teammates know you as a person off the ice and on the ice then you’re coming to the rink every day with a smile on your face no matter what the situation is.”

He also added that Milan Lucic is the one who currently motivates him the most on the Flames.

Changing on the Fly

Most NHL players are used to following a set routine to compete at a high level on a nightly basis. Some players get dressed from right to left and never get out of the habit; others eat the same pre-game meal, while a legend like Sidney Crosby hasn’t changed his jockstrap since high school. To keep himself dialed in mentally both on and off the ice, Rinaldo says he doesn’t follow a routine. Instead, he credits his ability to adapt to certain situations because he feels it allows him to perform better.

Zac Rinaldo Nashville Predators
Zac Rinaldo, former Nashville Predator (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

“I’ve never had a set routine because I’ll wake up one morning and my body will be feeling this way, and I’ll wake up the next morning and my body’s feeling different, so every day I’m addressing the problems that I’m dealing with that day. If I were to do the same routine in and out, I wouldn’t be addressing the problems that are specifically going on. I would just be hitting what I normally do and those problems will still be there, so you have to target the problems when they pop up, not just doing that same routine all day every day because, like you said it gets boring and you may want to switch it up. That could go wrong and it could go good, it’s all a personal preference, but for me, I address the problems right on the head.”

Rinaldo added that structure in our lives is good, but it’s important to not get too complacent, and be okay with change.

An Easy Choice

It’s clear to see why Rinaldo is one of the faces of mental health in Calgary. He has a challenging role in the NHL, but opening up about the struggles he’s faced with his own mental health, or even when he has down-days now, seems to bring out a lot of happiness for Rinaldo, as he was so genuine with each question he received during the recent Q & A. In Alberta, 40% of people in the province have said their mental health has deteriorated since the onset of the pandemic, so to have Rinaldo as one of the main faces of mental health awareness in Calgary is a massive addition, as both he and Matthew Tkachuk represent the Flames’ mental health initiative through the Calgary Flames Foundation.

Zac Rinaldo
Zac Rinaldo, former Boston Bruin (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Rinaldo is not afraid to talk about his journey to the NHL or what he’s battling outside of the rink. With so many looking up to him as an ambassador for mental health awareness in Calgary, it’s pretty hard not to admire his dedication to those who are fighting with their own anxieties.

Thank you to Zac Rinaldo, the Calgary Public Library, and Renu Sahota for being generous with their time and hosting the Mental Health & Hockey Talks event. In a world where so many of us have struggled in the last year or so, these types of initiatives are imperative because after I exited the online event, I personally felt better about talking about mental health.